Winter Cycling III: Riding Tips

Riding in the winter can be a challenge no matter how well prepared you may be.  If riding in icy or snowy conditions I would recommend that you should already be confident on a bike in slippery conditions.  If you don't know what to do when a bike slides out you should probably get some practice in more benign conditions.

That being said, there are a few simple techniques you can use to keep you out of trouble when riding in bad conditions:

Rough ice

When riding on icy back roads you will often find that the surface has been churned up and re-frozen.  The general rule is to stay loose on the bike.  Most of the time if you have reasonable momentum the bike will find its way out of trouble without too much input from the rider.

The exception to this is riding through the ruts left by vehicles (tractors and farm machinery seem particularly bad for creating ruts).  You have two choices.  You try to ride the rut.  If it's wide enough and smooth enough this can be a good thing to do.  Be careful that you don't hit the side of the rut as the bike will try to climb out and may throw you out of control.  The other option is to cross the rut.  I approach this in the same way as crossing tramlines or wet tree roots.  Cross the rut as close to 90 degrees as possible.  While crossing the rut use only minimal input to the bike, no brakes, no steering, no power, stay loose.

Deep snow

Once the snow gets above about 20cm deep my bike starts to struggle.  I can find grip, but the weight of the snow being moved aside becomes too much for forward progress.  If you have ultra-wide tyres you can float across the deeper stuff without the same problems.

When I have no choice but to get through the deep stuff I try to carry as much momentum as possible.  I pick a low gear, get a good spin going and try to maintain speed throughout the deep snow.  Shifting your weight back a little bit also helps.  It will give you a bit more traction on the rear wheel and allow the front to float slightly.

Controlling a slide

Even with the best prepared bike you can find yourself in a slide.  The nemesis for my bike seems to be unconsolidated loose slush - everything else is fine.  Once you're in a slide you have to decide quickly if it's recoverable.  Most of the time you can get control back by shifting your weight to counteract the slide and possibly dropping a foot off the pedal (flat pedals are handy here!).  Again, stay loose and go with the slide.

If the slide is terminal you need to decide how to crash.  If possible lay the bike down flat and push it away from you.  If you're heading for a ditch or hedgerow again try to get the bike away from you and if possible aim for something soft!

Other traffic

When road riding in winter you should be acutely aware that most other road users won't have nearly as much grip as you have with your spiked tyres.  It's all too easy for a car to slide wide on a hill or corner.  My general rule is if I see a car on a piece of road that could possible cause problems I will stop, get off the bike and get off the road.  It's not worth the risk of getting squished by a sliding car.


Winter Cycling II: Clothing

The correct clothing is just as important as the correct bike when riding in winter.  I've found that the key is to ride with a set of carefully chosen layers.  This will allow you to fine-tune your clothes as your ride progresses.  My typical winter riding gear is:
  • Wicking base layer to remove cold sweat from your skin
  • Wicking thermal mid-layer to provide insulation.  I usually go for a lightweight fleece as a mid-layer.
  • Breathable windproof / showerproof top layer.  I don't ride in a full waterproof as they usually aren't breathable enough for cycling, so a windproof to keep the elements away is better.
  • Full pack-away waterproof.  This is a last resort when it gets really wet.  It will be uncomfortable to ride in but will stop you getting completely soaked.
Different people experience different problems riding in cold weather.  I find my hands and feet can get very cold.  To reduce this problem I wear either fleecy gloves in good, cold conditions or waterproof fleece-lined gloves in wetter conditions.  These reduce the feel you've got for the controls on the bike, but as with everything it's a matter of compromise.

To keep my feet warm I typically wear Sealskinz waterproof socks.  These have a neoprene layer integrated into the fabric which do a reasonable job of keeping your feet dry.  Even when they fail and your feet become wet they do a good job of keeping the water warm!

Finally I will wear some good quality riding shoes.  When riding on the road I typically wear my walking boots.  I figure if my bike goes wrong there's a good chance I will have a long walk ahead of me, so I should be comfortable.  On the mountain bike I favour Five Ten shoes.  They aren't very waterproof, but they are warm and the soft rubber means you've got reasonable grip on frozen ground.


Winter Cycling I: Bike Preparation

This year I decided not to get caught out by the Scottish winter and to be properly prepared for a winter's worth of cycling.  I am going to post up a few articles that cover the basic of cycling in the winter.  These are all based upon my own experiences of what works and what doesn't.

The bike I will be using over winter is my Cotic Roadrat.  In its usual guise I have it set up as a fast tourer with tough, but fast rolling tyres, racks and panniers.  In this first post I will go through some of the changes I made to the bike in order to get it to work in the winter.
Roadrat in usual fast-touring guise


The first thing to address are the tyres.  Normal road-biased tyres will very quickly reach the limit of grip once the roads get icy.  Luckily there are a few options.  MTB style chunky tyres can be found in 700c sizes and will give a lot more grip in slushy and snowy conditions, especially if you choose some with a soft rubber compound.

Unfortunately, even chunky tyres will be useless once the roads get icy.  Once this happens the only option is to use studded tyres.  These are usually a combination of chunky tread for snow and a number of steel studs embedded in the rubber which bite into the ice.  I use Continental Nordic Spike 240 tyres which have 240 spikes in each tyre.  They're quite expensive, but as this is only way I get to cycle at this time of year, they're well worth it.  On sheet ice these tyres feel like you're riding on dry tarmac.


My Roadrat is equipped with an 8-speed Shimano Alfine gear hub.  So far this winter it has been faultless.  There's a barely perceptible increase in drag, but no more than you get with most hubs at this time of year.

Gear hubs tend to cope a little better than the alternative derailleur system as they are less prone to icing up and jamming.  Some people advocate, how do I phrase this... "micturating" on your rear derailleur once it gets frozen.  I'm sure this would work as a temporary fix, but in most conditions would re-freeze quite quickly.  A better option I use on my mountain bikes is to make sure all the moving parts are very well oiled.  This seems to do a reasonable job of keeping the water, and so the ice, from jamming up the mechanism.  Of course, even this will start to fail after a number of hours in snowy sub-zero conditions.

Other tweaks

A few other minor tweaks can be made to your bike to make it more comfortable in the winter:

  • Fit flat pedals so that you can wear warm boots.
  • Drop your saddle a bit for when the bike starts squirming around in the icy ruts.
  • Make sure you have plenty of lighting.  Winter conditions can change quickly so I run my usual Blackburn lights along with the USE Exposure lights I usually use on the mountain bike.
  • If fitted, raise your mudguards as high as possible.  Your tyres can get clogged with snow and jam under the guards, so try to get as much clearance as possible.

The end result

Once you've made these changes your bike should be in good shape for some winter riding.  I find my setup works well on icy roads, slushy conditions and snow up to about 15-20cm.  If you're riding in deeper snow you probably need to float on top of the snow rather than digging through it.  In which case you probably need something more specialised like the Surly Pugsley.

I'll be adding a few more posts on this topic in the next week or so.
Roadrat with spiked tyres

Winter riding!